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FiiO E18 Review from audiophile-in-training perspective ;) with lots of PICS!!!

post #1 of 17
Thread Starter 

As I mentioned in some of my previous posts when I joined head-fi community, I'm actually a reviewer of android accessories who is on a journey to learn about audiophile world :)  I had an incredible opportunity to receive and to review E18 USB DAC/AMP unit from FiiO, and would like to share with all of you what I think about it, and to post this review in addition to a detailed write up already posted by ClieOS.  So, go easy on me ;)

 

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Getting my Galaxy Note 2 almost a year ago played a significant role in how I changed my home entertainment system.  It became my go-to music player, my preferred movie player, my game console, and just in general my pocket entertainment system.  Delivery of sound is the key element of such system, and that's how my journey begin to find decent headphones.  I'm still on that journey and have found a lot of great choices in different price categories.  But this journey took a slightly different direction when I started to visit audiophile communities to learn more about proper setup to achieve a great sound.  One thing I found mentioned over and over again - to complete the equation of sound perfection you need audio source + quality DAC / headphone amplifier + headphones.  Considering I wanted to stick with my Note 2 as audio source and already have a selection of preferred IEM, at first I got a little discouraged looking at different DAC and headphone amp bricks because I didn't want to loose my portability.  But at the end I found the best solution with the most flexible setup - FiiO E18.  As someone who hasn't been previously exposed to the audiophile world, I couldn't even believe my eyes that something like this even existed.  That is why I'm very excited to share with you my Note 2 best new companion - E18.

 

I always start with a packaging of the product since it sets the tone before the review.  The product was packaged in a very sturdy hard carton box with a modest design.  It's actually very environmentally conscious without any unnecessary plastic.  But once you open it up and start taking E18 out along with all the accessories, it becomes almost like a magic trick how much they packed inside of this little box.  In my pictures below the only extra thing was a second set of usb/micro-usb cable included inside of packing envelope while the product box only had one of these cables.  E18 itself was inside of a form fitting soft storage pouch, intended for DAC/amp only, no extra room for cables.  Once you take E18 you can't help but notice how light weight it is.  With dimensions of only 130mm x 66.2mm and thickness of 14.6mm and a weight of 162g, it's super compact and fits nicely in the palm of your hand.  The brushed metal finish of the case takes it to the next level of quality and appeal.  Every element, every port, and every control on E18 screams high quality.  All 3.5mm ports are gold plated and precisely aligned with the edge of the enclosure.  Micro-usb ports are also aligned and slightly recessed so that mating cable doesn't stick out too much.  Gain, Bass, and DAC/CHG switches have a precise click action, and Playback (next, prev, play/pause) Controls have a nice tactile response.  Speaking of playback controls, the left/right arrows actually point to next/prev instead of typical prev/next like everywhere else, but you get used to it really quickly especially since play/pause button is not in the middle.  Of course, the big star of the controls is Volume analog knob, ALPS potentiometer with a symmetrical placement for easy access and very precise smooth rotation movement.  The volume knob also works as power on switch when you turn it from "0" position where you get red led power indicator.  The feel of turning analog knob to control your volume is priceless, puts you in full control, and makes you feel like you are dealing with a real audiophile equipment.

 

In addition, you also get a large selection of high quality accessories.  You get usb/micro-usb charging cable which can also be used to connect to your laptop/computer, a short right angle 3.5mm male to male adapter for headphone amp connection between smartphone headphone jack and E18 line in, you get a very rare pair of micro-usb to micro-usb OTG cables to connect DAC to your smartphone/host for external audio processing, you also get 3.5mm to S/PDIF adapter for coaxial output to give you an option of outboard connection, you get 2 sets of rubber bands in standard and large sizes to attach E18 to your smartphone or music player, you get a set of stick-on rubber feet if you choose to attach it to a device like a smartphone without a case and want to prevent scratching, you get a very nice Quick Guide with explanation of every port and control, and a warranty card with step by step explanation how to check authenticity of your product.

 

As you have seen from description of accessories, this little portable device is a swiss army knife of multiple functionality.  First of all, it has it's own built in battery with 3500 mAh capacity to power up internal components AND also to work as external battery charger.  Believe it or not but you can actually juice up your smartphone or wireless headphones/speakers/accessories using E18.  With a battery full charged, confirmed by 3 leds indicators corresponding to low/medium/high capacity, you get 25hr of continuous AMP use or 12hr of continuous USB DAC use.  Keep in mind, when used as USB DAC through OTG cable where your smartphone becomes a Host - E18 will not drain your phones battery because it uses it's own built in power supply.  This USB DAC functionality is the most useful and sound rewarding in my opinion.  Also, in that configuration you no longer need to rely on transport control of your audio player and instead can use remote Playback controls on E18 to play/pause and skip next/prev.  Of course, your smartphone need to support USB OTG.  If it doesn't, no worries since you can use E18 as headphone amp by connecting 3.5mm output from headphone jack of your smart device or tablet to E18 input and plugging your headphones of choice to headphone output of E18.  And if you want more, just connect E18 to your laptop as an external USB sound card where in addition to higher quality sound output you can use the same remote Playback buttons to control your Windows Media player.

 

It's great to know how well E18 operates in different modes and it's compatibility with smart devices through OTG USB, but without rewarding sound performance all this will be negligible.   I'm not going to pretend to be an experienced audiophile, and for a more detailed analysis of this USB DAC/AMP I would suggest taking a look at this review on head-fi by one of their highly reputable reviewers: http://www.head-fi.org/t/685414/preview-fiio-e18-kunlun-surprise-surprise .  But I still would like to add my impression from a perspective of audiophile in training.  For my test I used Logitech UE900 and Etymotic HF2 headphones, and did a number of a/b comparison using both through headphone amp only path and USB DAC path.  Using 3.5mm audio jumper between my Note 2 headphone output and E18 input with headphones connected to E18, I found the sound to be relative transparent to my ears, exactly what headphone amp supposed to do - to amplify the sound without coloring with distortion or it's own built in EQ.  USB DAC config is my main use for this device.  Note 2 recognized E18 as peripheral device attached to a host without any problems.  I also found that while playing music both Note 2 headphone output and E18 headphone outputs were active which helped with a/b comparison.  Basically Note 2 recognized E18 being connected to the phone so sound wasn't playing through speaker of my smartphone.  Even with a Gain set to low and Bass boost turned off, you can hear right away a significant difference in sound delivery where everything sounded tighter, with more headroom and improved dynamics especially as you raise the volume, and the sound itself felt a bit smoother and warmer.  Gain switch added a significant boost in volume (supposed to be a little over 6dB) and Bass boost was a pure delight especially with UE900 which have a more balanced sound.  That Bass boost added a nice warm low frequency punch and made sound more "fun".  I was very pleasantly surprised how clean that boost was applied, not like a low frequency shelf EQ boost but rather a precisely tuned parametric EQ boost of sub bass frequencies.  Btw for my test I was using stock Android audio player since my favorite Neutron MP turned out to have some incompatibility issue with E18 processing (added distortion and roll off of high frequencies).  UPDATE: seems after the latest v1.7.53 update of Neutron everything works great and developer (Neutron) mentioned it could have been due to my own setting of auto-gain which needed a reset.

 

Overall, I know this is the first time I used USB DAC/AMP but in my opinion FiiO E18 set a VERY HIGH bar for any future comparison.  I think the combination of portable size, the build quality with all the precision controls, the enhanced sound quality and well executed Bass boost, and other bonuses such as playback control and external battery functionality - ALL make this portable device as a must have item for anybody who appreciates the high-fidelity sound and wants to enhance their listening experience with a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop/PC.  Since I received this E18 model as a review unit, I've been told that price will be set closer to $160, and we will find out very soon once it gets listed on amazon.  In my opinion - this is one fantastic value!!!

 

Here are the pictures in order of unboxing, walkthrough, and setup and use with my Note 2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Edited by twister6 - 10/30/13 at 11:30am

Gear mentioned in this thread:

post #2 of 17
I found you here! Lol. Review here is as insightful as it was on xda.
post #3 of 17
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by jRi0T68 View Post

I found you here! Lol. Review here is as insightful as it was on xda.

 

Hey bud, yep - I'm spreading with my reviews across head-fi, xda-developers, and android-forums :)

 

BTW, to answer you question in xda - when you are listening to music and receive a call, music pauses automatically until you done with a call and then it resumes.  Obviously, if your headphone has in-line remote/mic you will not be able to talk through it since it works only connected directly to smartphone headphone jack, but you can always switch to speakerphone or just pick up your phone and use it as is since this setup if very compact.

 

BTW^2, last night Neutron pushed 1.7.53 update.  Just from a very quick test it sounds like they fixed compatibility issue with E18, but I need to run more tests and waiting on official reply from Dmitry of Neutron MP.

post #4 of 17
Great review! I thoroughly enjoyed it. I just bought an E18 last night and I've been using it off and on since. Great improvement with my Spirit One hps. I still need to give them some more listening time to be able to give more detailed comments.

But the reason I am posting here is to recommend to you to try replacing the rubber bands with Velcro. I some these strips lying around for three years because I knew they would become useful one day. And now they finally have. Very well spent $1.30!

Here are some pics that I quickly took with my Note2. But I had to detach the phone to take the pictures of the back cover with the Velcro and the E18.

Enjoy.
post #5 of 17
And more pics. (Hope it works.)






twister6, as a tribute to your report skills, this image has your report in the background. wink.gifbiggrin.gif



In this picture, the E18 is very comfortable to hold (along with the Note2). I find that the back of the Note2 is very slippery, so the E18 actually makes it easier to hold (aside from the added weight of course). It is also very easy to grip or hold the E18 & Note2 when you are not viewing the phone, i.e. when walking around with the phone while your arms are swinging during your walk.


In this picture, I could have placed the E18 a little higher and it would still not interfere with the camera. In fact, I could attach it so that the bottom of it is just a few millimeters below the Note2. But if I want to take a picture with the phone, I would have to disconnect the headphone because it would be right in front of the camera lens.

Let me know if you have any questions or if you need more pictures.
Edited by Rayzilla - 11/2/13 at 11:23pm
post #6 of 17

Here is a picture to show how little the E18 sticks out below the Note2 and still be able to take a picture. It is literally only about 3 mm below the Note2.

 Self-image. lol

post #7 of 17

Thank for the review. Very nice. Subscribed.


Edited by Ashade - 11/11/13 at 7:08am
post #8 of 17
Thread Starter 

Just give me a few days, I found a PERFECT solution for a custom grip to attach E18 (or any other FiiO portable amps/DACs) and then attach it to the phone where the display is open and not obstructed by rubber bands.  The whole point of E18 is to be able to enjoy high quality sound with either remote control or touch control of your phone, or to enjoy great sound when watching videos/movies.  Will post a detailed review very soon!!!

post #9 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by twister6 View Post
 

Just give me a few days, I found a PERFECT solution for a custom grip to attach E18 (or any other FiiO portable amps/DACs) and then attach it to the phone where the display is open and not obstructed by rubber bands.  The whole point of E18 is to be able to enjoy high quality sound with either remote control or touch control of your phone, or to enjoy great sound when watching videos/movies.  Will post a detailed review very soon!!!

 

Looking forward to that!

post #10 of 17
6dB gain isn't much for an amplifier
post #11 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by skamp View Post

6dB gain isn't much for an amplifier

 

 

The increase in volume is not the only important feature for an amplifier, in fact, I've never used gain in any of my amplifiers because I didn't need it.


Edited by Ashade - 11/11/13 at 9:27am
post #12 of 17
Thread Starter 

As much as I was excited about E18 portable usb DAC/amp, there was one thing I wish could have been improved.  When you are dealing with a portable external DAC or amp, you need a way to attach it to your audio source.  If you have a dedicated mp3/audio player using velcro or rubber band is the most logical option.  The same idea could be applied when using with a smartphone, especially in a setup with E18 where it's intended to be connected to your smartphone through USB/otg cable.  FiiO included two sets of rubber bands for that purpose, and I have read how others use a velcro tape as an alternative attachment option.  Using a velcro tape is secure but it will leave a sticky residue if you decide to remove it.  It also takes away from brushed metal look of the case when you use it standalone.  Plus, assuming you would not stick the other side of velcro on the back of your phone but rather to some temporary case, it's no longer a universal attachment.  On the other hand, using rubber band is a clean solution that should work with any case and without a need for any sticky velcro tape, but you will have parts of your smartphone touchscreen covered with a rubber band.  It interferes with touch screen control and obstructs the view of the screen if you choose to use your DAC/amp for a premium sound delivery when watching movies/videos.  Not too mention rubber band will not work with a tablet if you use E18 as headphone amp.  The solution?  The almighty Arkon Slim Grip Ultra mount!!! http://www.arkon.com/Slim-Grip%20Ultra/index.html

 

First of all, out of every car mount I have reviewed in the past (and I have reviewed them all) Slim Grip Ultra has been my favorite go-to car mount that works with any size smartphone as well as 7"/8" tablets.  I have reviewed it in the past here: http://forum.xda-developers.com/showthread.php?t=2174449 and later followed it with Intelligrip version here: http://forum.xda-developers.com/showpost.php?p=44760662&postcount=41 .  What's unique about it is that mount grip can easily be removed from the mounting arm leaving only a slim backplate which is 10mm thin with about 60mm in width and 110mm in length expandable to 160mm in length through a spring-loaded mechanism.  In addition it comes with 2 sets of removable support legs of different length with a soft inner rubber padding and ability to extend the backplate with end grips to hold your smartphone or tablet.  What is very important, those support legs could be shifted anywhere along the edges to accommodate for different port openings on your smartphone or tablet.  Therefore you no longer need to attach E18 to the phone but rather use your rubber bands (smaller size pair worked great) to attach E18 to Arkon Slim Grip Ultra as I have demonstrated in the pictures.  Once it's attached, you just insert your smartphone or tablet of choice inside of the grip and you're DONE!!!

 

Now your display will be open for a full touch control.  You no longer need to use any sticky velcro.  You can prop up your setup as a kickstand to put it up on the table to watch movies or videos or get access to your audio player without any obstructions.  It also enhances the grip of the phone to hold it securely in your hand, and doesn't add too much bulk since Slim Grip Ultra is very lightweight and you only increasing thickness of your overall setup by 10mm.  If you choose to you can still attach E18 with a velcro tape to Slim Grip Ultra, but in my opinion it's no longer necessary since you get a very sturdy grip, and can still use it later in the car to mount your smartphone or tablet.  You can purchase Slim Grip Ultra for about $20 which is a fantastic value considering how many uses you can get out of it.  Furthermore, you can choose Intelligrip version of Slim Grip Ultra which has a replaceable NFC tag.  If your phone supports NFC, you can program it to trigger any action when phone is inserted into the E18 piggyback grip.

 

Here are the pictures:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

post #13 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by Rayzilla View Post

And more pics. (Hope it works.)






twister6, as a tribute to your report skills, this image has your report in the background. wink.gifbiggrin.gif



In this picture, the E18 is very comfortable to hold (along with the Note2). I find that the back of the Note2 is very slippery, so the E18 actually makes it easier to hold (aside from the added weight of course). It is also very easy to grip or hold the E18 & Note2 when you are not viewing the phone, i.e. when walking around with the phone while your arms are swinging during your walk.


In this picture, I could have placed the E18 a little higher and it would still not interfere with the camera. In fact, I could attach it so that the bottom of it is just a few millimeters below the Note2. But if I want to take a picture with the phone, I would have to disconnect the headphone because it would be right in front of the camera lens.

Let me know if you have any questions or if you need more pictures.

How do you call these sticky tapes in english?!?
post #14 of 17
Quote:
Originally Posted by Varoudis View Post


How do you call these sticky tapes in english?!?

 

Velcro? As far as I know it is a trademark.

post #15 of 17

thanks I had no idea! :)

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